School taught me what to learn, but not how. I credit my mom with teaching me ‘how to learn’ and am so grateful because this skill lasts a lifetime!
In what I’m sure was her quest in raising smarter children who know how to learn, I remember our study sessions fondly. Contrary to the thinking that studying is one of the dullest things you could put a child, impatient to be playing or watching TV through, studying with my mom was fun.
Now that I’m older, learning by myself, hoping to help others learn how to learn, I can see why my experience was perhaps a little different from that of many kids.
My mother has always been an exceptional student and a natural learner. Not only did she teach me the material I’d bring home from school every day in homework journals and exercise books, but she also taught me the techniques I needed to study absolutely anything, effectively.
These are techniques I still use today, with a Master’s degree under my belt and pursuing a PhD next. Techniques that neuroscience has proved, time and again, to be highly effective in raising smart learners.
So, today, I’d like to share with you the strategies to learn how to learn better, which are not only mom-approved, but brain/neuroscience approved too.
5 Tips for Raising Smarter Children Who Know How to Learn
1) Take More Breaks as You Study
Yes, we’re discussing taking breaks even before we discuss something concretely study-related.
And there is a very valid reason for doing so, too. As part of learning how to learn for life, you need to understand how your brain works.
You see, the brain learns in two modes. Professor Oakley, a specialist in digital learning, calls them the “focus” mode, and the “diffuse” mode.
The “focus” mode, as the name suggests, is when your brain is concentrating hard on sense-making, picking up patterns, understanding and committing information to memory.
The “diffuse” mode, on the other hand, is when you’re not controlling what your mind is focusing on as much. Instead of sprinting to the finish line, you’re letting your mind take a leisurely stroll through the park.
In the “focus” mode, your brain has one thing in mind – reaching the finish line. But when you’re in the “diffuse” mode, because of the state of relaxation you’re in, you are more likely to notice things you wouldn’t have if you were rushing headlong in a specific direction.
This is the state in which the brain allows the information you were processing and inputting while in the “focus” mode to settle and solidify.
Your brain is relaxed and not constrained by having to fixate on specific details. This leaves it naturally able to make its own connections between the information you have been learning, recall details you might have overlooked before, make interesting observations you did not notice.
These “lightbulb” moments occur in the “diffuse” state when your mind subconsciously strengthens the associations and patterns you learned about and makes new ones.
This improves your understanding and recall of the material, by literally allowing you to soak in what you were learning while you’re taking a break.
2) Apply The Primacy and Recency Effect
When I was younger, my mom would give me a task to focus on for about half an hour, and then she would give me a break.
She’d ask me if I wanted to watch some cartoons, get a snack, or read a comic book, and whatever I chose, she would let me have my reward before we got back to work.
The technical name for this is the Pomodoro technique, a time management technique by Francesco Cirillo. “Pomodoro” means “tomato” in Italian, because many kitchen timers are tomato-shaped. You set 25 minutes on your timer – not necessarily a tomato-shaped one – to study, and then you take a break.
I still use this technique. After a half-hour stretch of work, I get up, walk around a bit, scroll through Twitter, listen to some music, check my messages with friends and family, watch a couple of YouTube videos.
It has become a how to learn habit I developed since childhood, thanks to my mother. And it is probably a big reason why I don’t remember studying being dull or boring.
By doing things you enjoy at intervals between work, you get to have more intense periods of productivity, while also enjoying other things.
This means you don’t fall into the negative mindset that learning is taking up the time you could have to do things you enjoy more. By taking breaks, you cut down the likelihood that you will procrastinate on that term paper, or that book report due soon.
Also, these regular breaks help naturally switch your brain from “focus” to “diffuse” mode and back, allowing you to digest manageable pieces of information first before you try to learn new material.
This is far more effective than hitting the books for hours at a go, only to realize later that you don’t remember most of what you were studying.
According to Learning Expert and Professor Pat Wyman, CEO of HowtoLearn.com, you want to take more breaks as you study, not fewer.
“The brain science behind why the Pomodoro Effect works so well is called Primacy and Recency. Advertisers make full use of this because you more easily recall what you see, hear and learn at the beginning, and what you see, hear and learn at the end of your study session, more than what is in the middle,” she continued.
3) Use the Retrieval Process to Improve Your Memory
So, after my little breaks with my comic books, my mom would often ask me to recall what we had covered first before moving on to something new. This meant I connected something new with what I’d already learned – another great how to learn strategy.
This could be doing a fresh set of sums using the formula we had been practicing, answering a question about the text, drawing a diagram of the water cycle from memory.
In college, I would do this for myself. After a couple hours of studying, I would turn to a blank page in my notebook and try to jot down what I remember from the material, in bullet-points or mind-maps. I felt good about learning new material because I knew how to learn it.
I would chuck the information in bits as I also used retrieval – the cognitive process of recalling information you had input previously into your brain.
Rather than reading and rereading the text over and over again, practicing retrieval of information is much more effective in strengthening recall. It lets you practice the actual technique of pulling up relevant, stored information inside your head.
By doing this, you reinforce what you did learn and identify what you forgot.
I remember getting the spelling for “mountain” wrong once.
After going over the list of spellings we were doing that day, my mother and I sat down to spell the word out together a few times.
Then I went off on my breaks, studied other things. Before bed, she asked me again. I got it right. When I woke up the next morning, at breakfast, she asked me again.
Needless to say, I never forgot the spelling for “mountain,” ever again.
I did this back then using both an auditory and a visual method. The use of two learning modalities works really well when you learn your spelling words.
4) Use Chunking
Unlike cartoons where you can just swallow an entire roast chicken or a triple-layered chocolate cake in one go, we chew our food in manageable mouthfuls. At least, if we want to avoid choking on it.
Similarly, you can’t just swallow an entire textbook or an entire chapter in said textbook in one go. You have to break it into smaller, more bite-size portions of information that you chew, swallow, and digest before you move on to the next mouthful.
This process is called chunking.
Our brain is naturally wired to pick up patterns and sort similar information together. This is the same when it comes to learning any subject or topic.
Say you’re learning about the digestive system.
The first category in your list is the organs in the digestive system. This is one manageable unit of information, because they’re all organs found in the human body, all belong to the same system, and are all connected to each other in a particular sequence.
Once you know this sequence and have committed it to memory, when you later learn how food is digested, you have the existing foundation of knowledge to work off of. This makes remembering the sequence of the process easier and more intuitive.
This is where chunking is different from simply memorizing. You can memorize a text word for word, but if you don’t understand it, then your knowledge is only surface level.
For example, you could know a song in a language foreign to you from beginning to end phonetically, but that does not make you fluent in that language.
This is where learning how to learn and using the retrieval process comes in. After every chunk of information consumed, try to recall it. Say it out loud to yourself a couple of times, or list out a summary on a Mind Map.
Once you know you have committed the chunk to memory and are not forgetting any details, move on to the next one.
This way, you build your understanding brick by brick or chunk by chunk. It ensures that you have a solid learning foundation, on top of which you can gradually build the rest of your knowledge. In turn, you have a more in-depth understanding of whatever you are studying.
5) Identify Your Learning Style
I was not the type of kid that ran around a lot or had trouble sitting still. I was, however, extremely keen on stories and would bug my family members to read me stories whenever I could.
It was not surprising, therefore, when I learned later in school that I was more of an auditory and visual learner than I was kinesthetic. I processed, understood, and retained information better when I could hear and see it.
My best friend, on the other hand, learns better by doing. She doesn’t have the patience to sit and watch a 2-minute recipe video but prefers to do her own trial-and-error experiments in the kitchen. She is definitely more of a tactile learner.
So, why is this important? Because knowing which learning style best describes you, helps optimize studying by playing up to your strengths, and working on their weaknesses.
Visual learners might find school easier, because they can translate information into mental pictures in their heads, which are easier to recall when it’s time to retrieve pertinent information.
This does not mean auditory and kinaesthetic learners are forsaken, though. All types of learners can pick up some visual learning tricks, which make understanding and recalling information much easier.
One way of doing this is through the usage of metaphors and analogies.
Now, throughout this article, I’ve used metaphors and analogies several times. They help paint a picture in your head, transport you into a specific scenario, to help convey ideas more easily.
Hopefully, this was the case for everyone reading this piece.
If I had jumped straight into the technical aspects of neuroscience instead, would that have facilitated better understanding? For the layman, probably not.
It’s useful, therefore, to know what learning style best describes how your child understands and learns. This way, you can work on helping them learn how they learn best.
Studying does not have to be hard, if you know how to study smart. By understanding how your brain works, and learning how to learn, you can not only study smart, but also enjoy learning a lot more than you thought you ever could!
With these how to learn strategies, you can raise smarter children who can learn for their lifetime! This way, no matter what school or their career demands of them they can be sure they will be successful because you taught them how to learn.
Nafisa Shamim, M.A. is a writer who enjoys asking questions, and enjoys finding their answers even more. She has been a student, even while working full time, so her more productive study tips are a great resource for you.
As she works towards her Ph.D., she hopes to actively contribute to academic literature on communication, especially how individuals use and process new media, and learn while helping others learn.